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Will Commercial Fishing Starve the Steller Sea Lion?

The government is allowing the commercial fishing industry to deplete Stellar sea lions' primary food

The Humane Society of the United States

Even as the western population of Steller sea lions has crashed precipitously over the last three decades—indicating a collapse of the entire marine ecosystem located just east of Prince William Sound in Alaska and expanding to Russia and Japan—the National Marine Fisheries Service continues to allow massive commercial fisheries to deplete the sea lion's primary food source.

The statistics are startling. The western population of Steller sea lions has declined by almost 90% since the 1970s, a collapse that finally forced authorities in 1997 to list the population as endangered under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The population had been listed as threatened since 1990.

Not coincidentally, there has been a tremendous growth in intensive, high-volume trawling that targets the sea lion's primary food source, groundfish such as pollock. By holding the door open for the enormous expansion of commercial groundfish fisheries, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) has been accused of repeatedly failing to honor its responsibility to protect Steller sea lions and their habitat under the ESA.

As a result, many believe that the Steller sea lion is, literally, starving to death.

In recent years, conservation groups have taken the fight to court to get NMFS to live up to its obligations under the ESA. Most recently, a federal district court in Washington ruled that the NMFS's fishing plan was illegal because it failed to consider the impact that the fisheries had on sea lions and their habitat. The ruling won't be the last word on the subject.

Western Alaska

In 2000, the estimated Steller population in western Alaska was a fraction of what it had been: 34,600 sea lions, down from approximately 180,000 in the 1950s. The number of adults declined at an average rate of almost 5% annually from 1989 to 2002. Since 1998, the number of pups counted has declined by 11.2%. Of particular concern is the status of Steller sea lions in the western Aleutian Islands region, which saw a 39% decline in pup counts from 1998 to 2002.

Contrast this decline in sea lions with the increase in pollock catches. NMFS had permitted the annual pollock catch from the Bering Sea to increase from less than 175,000 metric tons in 1964 to almost 1.8 million metric tons by 1972. An average of more than 1.2 million tons were taken from the region during the 1990s.

Trawling for groundfish in that region is now worth an estimated $1.2 billion annually. NMFS waited until January 2001 to release a draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement examining the effects of groundfish fisheries on the marine ecosystem, the first significant study of the situation in more than two decades.

Legal wrangling

In 1998, a lawsuit was filed by Earthjustice and Trustees for Alaska on behalf of Greenpeace, American Oceans Campaign (now Oceana), and the Sierra Club; the plaintiffs claimed that NMFS was violating the ESA by failing to protect the Steller sea lion from the ravages of overfishing. In both 1999 and 2000, U.S. district court rulings found NMFS to be negligent in its management of the sea lions and other marine species.

Intensive legal, scientific, and public pressure resulted in a court-ordered injunction on trawling in critical Steller habitat in 2000. That year, NMFS announced a plan to close two-thirds of critical Steller habitat to fishing for pollock, Atka mackerel, and Pacific cod. But by the time NMFS's plan was implemented, it had been weakened, apparently under pressure from the commercial fishing industry. By mid-2001, even those weakened protections were rolled back because of the political intervention of Alaskan Senator Ted Stevens.

However, in December 2002 a federal district court in Washington ruled that the fishing plan implemented by NMFS was illegal because it failed adequately to consider the effects of fishing on Steller sea lions and their habitat. The judge ordered NMFS to provide better rationale and information on the effects of fishing in critical habitat areas under the 2002-2003 fishery rules.

This was an important step in influencing NMFS to manage fisheries with reasonable consideration for the health of the ecosystem rather than simply for the profit of the commercial fisheries. However, it has yet to be seen if NMFS will improve its management policies.

What you can do

Write to NMFS Administrator William Hogarth and NMFS Alaska Regional Director Jim Balsiger. Tell them that people are paying attention to the way NMFS manages fisheries in Steller habitat. Urge them to comply with the ESA and provide maximum protection to the Steller sea lion's critical habitat and food source.

Contact information

James W. Balsiger
Alaska Regional Administrator
National Marine Fisheries Service
P.O. Box 21668
Juneau, Alaska 99802-1668

William Hogarth
National Marine Fisheries Service
1315 East West Highway
Silver Spring, MD 20910

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